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Posts Tagged ‘Reinhard Hagen’

Last year, the first Ring Cycle in the Deutsche Oper clearly showed progressive improvement and accordingly the Walküre was an altogether more satisfying experience than the Rheingold. This time, the development is far more difficult to understand. First of all, the issue of orchestral sound volume is more complex this year. The cast last time was made of substantially larger voices (with one exception), what made it easier for the conductor to give freer rein to his orchestra. Before someone points out that I have been pressing the same key: even if a large orchestral sound is not essential for Wagner, it is nonetheless the safer way of producing the right effect. Herbert von Karajan, for instance, opted for chamber-like sonorities for his Salzburg Ring – and one easily realizes that the level of craftsmanship required is far above average. One needs only a top-tier orchestra exhaustively rehearsed to draw on tonal colouring and accent. And some still find it a bit undramatic. Is it fair to expect that every Wagner performance in the theatre to be thrilling? Maybe not – but a Ring Cycle is supposed to be a special occasion and, if I have to be honest about this evening’s performance, the adjective is “boring”. I was afraid to use this word, but then a singer friend who was there agreed sotto voce  “I was so afraid to call it boring, but that is what it was”. So, we both encouraged each other to express our feelings and the result is that I am writing it here. From the first bureaucratic bars, one could know what was coming. Not the last word in clarity, no tingle factor out of momentous orchestral sound, only occasional sense of forward movement: wherever you ran to, disappointment was waiting. Act II felt like as long as Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (the most uninteresting Todesverkündung scene ever shown to an audience included). After a messy Walkürenritt, only halfway act III seemed to catch some fire – the Deutsche Oper’s shining feature as a Wagnerian orchestra, its almost unique blend of brass and string sounds, was finally conjured, some emotion was put into the proceedings and, with the big-voiced singer in the evening alone on stage, Musikdrama made a fast but somewhat late appearance.

Jennifer Wilson seems to be one of those singers cursed with an exceptional vocal nature. God has really wanted her to be a dramatic soprano, but she has received very little help from her teachers. Basically, I don’t really think that the way she sings now is everything she can do. It is all right a big, bright, easy voice, but imperfectly supported. To start with, I know that the ho-jo-to-ho’s are assignments from hell, but she was audibly breathless in her first appearance and breathless she often was, chopping phrases more often than I am used to hear. Problematic breath support has many consequences – faulty legato, instances of dubious pitch, tonal meagerness, patches of reduced audibility (especially middle and low register), hootiness, lack of finish in long notes. This evening, there were examples of all that. Sometimes, seeing that an exposed high note would come, an extra effort would be made and a legitimate rich, full, vibrant note would be produced and one could see how exciting everything could be.  It is clear that she has the right instincts but, if she was not in a very bad day, she should look into her technique, for her voice is really worth the effort.

Petra Maria Schnitzer is almost the perfect opposite of her Brünnhilde: she is a lyric soprano with solid schooling who knows all the tricks to deal with dramatic roles without damaging her voice. Although she was not in any way exceptional , she was still a touching Sieglinde. Her voice is not very distinctive, but it is pleasant, round and healthily produced. As a result, it has a youthful appeal that, aided by unfailing sense of style and a very likable personality, puts you on her side. Predictably, the lower end of the tessitura proved to be more challenging than the high notes – and probably only in Der Männer Sippe one could feel some discomfort. Daniela Sindram is the Octavian/Komponist kind of mezzo and not someone would expect to find as Fricka. She knows that she is no Christa Ludwig and fortunately did not try to be that. With her focused, round mezzo she produced an elegant performance with some forceful high notes and a discrete use of chest register to pierce through in her low notes. She is also a very intelligent and charismatic singer. It is always a pleasure to see and hear her – even in a role not really meant for her.

Yes, Robert Dean Smith has sung Tristan – and, as our good friend Cavalier has reminded me – even at the Met – but Siegmund has a very special kind of difficulty. He is not the first lighter-toned singer in this role – Jonas Kaufmann at the Met is another example – and the comparison with Kaufmann is interesting. Vocally speaking, I find JK basically more “interesting” than RDS – the voice is more immediately recognisable, the high notes are more incisive and he is more dramatically connected. But Dean Smith has one great advantage – he is more experienced and only steps on firm soil. His Siegmund was beautifully sung in flowing legato and – this is the first time I use Leontyne Price’s little concept for a singer in Wagnerian repertoire – joie de chant: one can feel he is enjoying himself there and, to keep quoting Price, if he were not, neither would we. I’ve seen that many members of the audience were truly satisfied with his performance – I was to a certain point. Beautiful as it was, it lacked some thrill, and the lack of volume was only part of it.

Greer Grimsley’s curdled and slightly unwieldy bass-baritone is not very seductive – and his emphatic and often rough approach to phrasing and unclear vowels don’t make it more appealing, but – and this evening this is a big “but” – he has a voice of truly Wagnerian proportions. When I was ready not to like him, I noticed that, whenever he was singing, the maestro could really relax and let his orchestra hit home. Then I remembered how uneventful last year’s otherwise more pleasant-toned Wotan had been and Grimsley’s performance began to have some interest. When he proved capable of some nuance in the closing scene, I’ve decided to consider him an asset in this performance. Finally, Reinhard Hagen was, as always, a most reliable Hagen.

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I do not know if the Deutsche Oper used the bad-news-first strategy, but it seems that their Ring has finally found the right track. Regardless of how intrinsically good today’s Walküre was, it is a significant improvement from yesterday’s Rheingold. To start with, Götz Friedrich’s production here is far more efficient than in the tetralogy’s first installment. Peter Sykora’s sets are more functional and better looking and, with the exception of a bunch of pointless props in act II (plastic dolls?) and of an unsensational solution for the magic fire  (as you might remember, it is supposed to be extraordinarily frightening – and four isolated bonfires fifty-centimeter-tall are hardly that). Actually, the costumes shown here are far more frightening – the Valkyries outfit and make-up reminded me the rock band Kiss. However, the most notable positive development is Gerlinde Pelkowski’s Spielleitung: both leading sopranos and the tenor interacted most sensitively – act I was particularly convincing – and gestures were economic, coherent and contributed to the understanding of the story. I am not sure if I actually like the weepy Wotan, but I guess that the approach fits the rather uncharismatic singer taking the role.

Musically, the most immediate difference from yesterday is the larger orchestral sound. Although the brass section still leaves more than something to be desired, the general sound picture was adequate and, by act III, quite satisfactory. It was hardly an orchestral tour de force, but rather honest and acceptable piece of work. Maestro Runnicles showed an inclination for a tad slower tempi than he had adopted at the Met (if my memory does not betray me). Curiously, the Wotan/Brünnhilde scene in act II seemed somewhat fast. Maybe because the Wotan available is not really fluent with the text and has instead an almost Mozartian legato-ish approach, this tricky passage gained a flowing, conversational character which struck me as quite refreshing. Naturally, it would have worked far better if the text could be more expressively handled. The ensuing Todesverkündgung was, on the other hand, particularly slow, an approach that would require from singers far more nuanced phrasing and from the orchestra far more narrating quality (as Maazel produced in his Met’s Walküre in 2008). Act III proved to be more successful, chamber-like textures were provided when necessary, the Walkürenritt clear and well-balanced and the closing scene sensitively built.

It is a pity that Violeta Urmana’s Verdian ventures have been hold against her status of leading singer in our days. Her work in Wagner is of surpassing quality – it is a pleasant, rich-toned, large voice with firm, round top notes with a most musical and elegant quality of phrasing. Of how many Wagnerian singers one could say something like that? Her Sieglinde is a touching portrayal, passion and vulnerability perfectly balanced. No wonder she was the favorite of the audience this evening. Evelyn Herlitzius’s Brünnhilde is more controversial. First of all – and one must keep this in mind on assessing her artistry – she is a singer whose Fach is simply the one required by Wagner for this role: she has no problem with the tessitura, tosses bright, powerful, unconstricted acuti, handles her passaggio to chest voice adeptly and enunciates the text with great accuracy. In fact, her technical security is quite soothing for audiences who have been too often kept at the edge of their seats fearing for the health of the soprano taking this role. That said, it is difficult to warm to the flutter mid-range, the squally articulation and the faulty legato. She is an energetic woman – and this is very positive for her engaging and convincing stage presence – and I have the impression that the overemphasis and the absence of shading (a drawback in the long Wotan/Brünnhilde  scene in act III) are maybe a byproduct of her attitude.

In spite of a a quite unseductive tone, Clifton Forbis is a most efficient Siegmund, who produces some powerful and firm high g’s. His crescendo in the sustained Wälse! Wälse! passage in act I is as impressive as it was in New York. It is a pity that his tenor is growing rather juiceless for cantabile passages – and Winterstürme was probably his weakest moment. He and Urmana established a particularly convincing partnership in their scenes, both musically and scenically. Reinhard Hagen was extremely well cast as Hunding – an all-round most satisfying performance. Mark Delavan’s Wotan still gives me an impression of work-in-progress. He responds for the particular challenges quite successfully, but his performance does not make into a coherent whole, but rather as a collection of moments. He seems to brace for the every musical or theatrical challenge and then simmer down to recover instead of keeping a continuous musical and interpretative line. I have to confess I rather saw in him “the guy playing Wotan”. I understand that he must have James Morris’s smoothly, elegantly sung account of the role as a model, but the veteran singer had at once a more powerful and voluminous voice, more spontaneous musicianship and a far more imposing presence. If Delavan wants to fill his shoes, he should tie all these loose ends in his performance first. It is a pity that Judit Németh was not really in good voice today – her Fricka sounding shrewish above everything else. Among the Valkyries, the Helmwige, Heidi Melton, offered a particularly accomplished ho-jo-to-ho, trills included.

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